Can Democracy Survive in the Post-Factual Age?: A Return Tot He Lippmann-Dewey Debate about the Politics of News

Article excerpt

"I have started to write a longish article around the general idea that freedom of thought and speech present themselves in a new light and raise new problems because of the discovery that opinion can be manufactured." Walter Lippmann, 19201

"Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissoluble wedded to the art of full and moving communication." John Dewey, 19272

There is a long held and often repeated assumption within liberal pluralist theories of the press that modern democracy rests on the foundation of the informed citizen who makes decisions based on rational, objective criteria and that the news media are perhaps the most crucial source of this information. The citizen, the media, and democratic government are neatly stitched together in this civic trilogy. And it is this assumption that has been eroding as we appear to have moved into a post-factual age where the border between fact and fiction, news and entertainment, information and advertisements has increasingly blurred.

For a long time now this assumption has been challenged by liberal and critical theorists for underestimating the role of ideology in the production of news. This is, what might be called, the "bias" critique, although on rare occasions the critique goes beyond bias to consider the very epistemology of news objectivity. The "bias" critique, perhaps the most dominant form of news criticism during the last three-quarters of a century, holds out the hope that the errors of accuracy and factuality may still be corrected, saving both the press and the democratic process.

More recently the liberal assumption has been challenged by liberal and critical theorists for misunderstanding that the role of the news as an institution is much more than the provision of information. This is what we might call the "cultural" critique and has taken two forms. Critical theorists have focused on the concept of the public sphere, asking where and under what condition is public opinion formed? And liberal theorists have begun to ask, under the guise of the public journalism movement, what is the role of news in the creation and maintenance of a democratic culture?

These are important challenges and important efforts to address what has been seen as the latest crisis of the press, a crisis of irrelevancy marked by declining readership, declining viewership, declining trust, and a decline even in a taste for the serious. Much has been written to substantiate the bias as well as the cultural critique of news and citizenship. However, the present monograph will argue that there is a connection between these challenges, as well as the original impetus to the traditional assumption of the informational role of the news, which has only been hinted at, a connection that links what is seen as a problem of bias or a problem of civic participation to what might be called an "epistemological politics"that is, the politics of what we know and how we act as citizens is linked to the politics of how we know. This monograph will argue that this link can be usefully illustrated and its importance explored by returning to a unique moment in United States media history: a debate between social commentator and journalist Walter Lippmann and philosopher John Dewey.

This debate is not unfamiliar to those concerned with the interconnections of citizenship, media, and democracy. In fact this debate, significantly brought to the attention of communication scholars by James W. Carey in the early 1980s, has in the last few years achieved a remarkable celebrity even in the popular press. In large part this has been due to the work of Jay Rosen, director of the "Project on Public Life and the Press" at New York University. Rosen saw this dialog between Lippmann and Dewey as illustrative of the contemporary need for the press to see its role in activist terms, both serving to rekindle a vital public life and serve as an active member of that public life. …